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News / Nation & World

Republicans push to add citizenship census question

By MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press
Published: May 8, 2024, 8:34pm

Some Republicans in Congress are pushing to require a citizenship question on the questionnaire for the once-a-decade census and exclude people who aren’t citizens from the count that helps determine political power in the United States.

The GOP-led House on Wednesday passed a bill that would eliminate noncitizens from the tally gathered during a census and used to decide how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. The bill is unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, the White House opposes it and there are legal questions because the Constitution says all people should be counted during the apportionment process.

But the proposal has set off alarms among redistricting experts, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers as a reprise of efforts by the Trump administration to place limits that would dramatically alter the dynamics of the census, which plays a foundational role in the distribution of political power and federal funding.

Still, opponents say the idea, once on the ideological fringe, has never gotten so far in the legislative process.

In March, senators rejected similar Republican-sponsored language in an appropriations bill. That push was seen as an effort to bolster the Republican agenda on immigration before the November elections, with Donald Trump as the party’s presumptive nominee against Democratic President Joe Biden.

“It’s taking it closer to reality than it has ever been,” said Steve Jost, a former Census Bureau official in the Obama and Clinton administrations. “This is part of a cohesive strategy in the GOP … of getting every single possible advantage when the country is so closely divided.”

The 14th Amendment requires that congressional seats be distributed among the states “according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.” Besides helping allocate congressional seats and Electoral College votes, census figures guide the distribution of $2.8 trillion in federal money.

“We ask all kinds of questions on the census anyway so what’s wrong with asking, ‘Are you a citizen?’” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Wednesday during a debate on the House floor.

Similar efforts failed before the last census in 2020 when the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the census form. Following that defeat, the government under Trump tried to discern the citizenship status of every U.S. resident through administrative records and sought to exclude people who were in the U.S. illegally from the count used for apportioning congressional seats.

Biden, in one of his first acts as president in January 2021, signed orders revoking those Trump directives.

During a House Rules Committee hearing Monday, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Utah, said including noncitizens in the nation’s head count “skews representation away from American citizens” and is tied to Biden’s “border crisis” because it helps places with large numbers of people who aren’t citizens.

“Localities sympathetic to the president’s agenda are poised to directly benefit,” Burgess said.

According to critics, the citizenship question was inspired by the late Republican redistricting expert Tom Hofeller. He wrote that using citizen voting-age population instead of the total population to redraw congressional and legislative districts could be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.

Republican supporters of the legislation contend counting people who are in the U.S. illegally helps Democrats.